Can the Bomb Be Banned?

Review of

The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger

New York: Henry Holt and Co./Metropolitan Books, 2007, 272 pp.

Since the publication of his 1982 book The Fate of the World, a dark vision of the horrors of nuclear war that helped to launch the nuclear freeze movement, Jonathan Schell has advocated the abolition of nuclear weapons on moral grounds. The title of his latest book, The Seventh Decade, refers to the fact that more than 60 years after Hiroshima, the bomb continues to cast a long shadow over global politics. In contrast to the fairly robust balance of terror that prevailed during the Cold War (apart from hair-raising episodes such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis), nuclear weapons spread during the 1990s to unstable countries such as Pakistan, increasing the risk that they could fall into the hands of extremists who would not hesitate to use them.

Written with grace and passion, The Seventh Decade sets out the case for abolition and a roadmap to a nuclear weapons–free world. In so doing, however, Schell underestimates the enormous obstacles—political, strategic, and technical—that stand in the way of that worthy goal.

The foundation of the global nuclear order is the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been signed and ratified by 188 countries. According to the “central bargain” of the treaty, the five states that tested nuclear weapons before 1967 (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China) are allowed to retain their arsenals for an interim period, provided that they comply with the obligation in Article VI to make good-faith efforts to disarm. All other parties to the NPT agree to forgo nuclear weapons but, in return for their temporary unequal status, are granted in Article IV the “inalienable right” to civilian nuclear power, which many of the non–nuclear-weapon states interpret to include fuel-cycle technologies such as uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. Since the NPT entered into force, four additional countries have acquired nuclear weapons. Three of them (Israel, India, and Pakistan) are not parties to the treaty, whereas the fourth (North Korea) secretly acquired nuclear arms and then withdrew from the NPT.

Schell notes that since the end of the Cold War, the five nuclear-weapon states that belong to the NPT have failed to comply with their Article VI obligation to take steps toward nuclear disarmament and instead have moved to modernize their arsenals. Although the United States, Russia, and China are no longer adversaries, they justify their continued possession of nuclear weapons in vague generic terms, in the apparent expectation that the old rivalries may return—a prophecy that could be self-fulfilling. France and Britain face no clear military threat, yet they retain nuclear weapons as a shortcut to great-power status that is no longer warranted by their middling economic and conventional military strength.

In Schell’s view, the determination of the nuclear-weapon states to preserve a discriminatory system of nuclear haves and have-nots has led prestige-hungry countries such as India to go nuclear, and he fears that others such as Iran are likely to follow suit. Schell estimates that about 50 countries have the technical capability to build the bomb, should they decide to do so. Not only are nuclear weapons based on scientific discoveries that are more than 60 years old, but the relevant technologies are increasingly available, either legally or on the black market. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, a trafficking network run by Pakistani physicist A. Q. Khan sold uranium-enrichment technology and warhead designs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

A major dilemma facing the nonproliferation regime is that only a few steps separate the production of civilian reactor fuel from the making of nuclear bombs. Parties to the NPT are required to negotiate a bilateral “safeguards agreement” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which inspects civilian nuclear facilities to detect—and hence deter—the diversion of nuclear materials to military use. But IAEA inspections are not foolproof, and the risk of treaty breakout remains. North Korea, for example, produced plutonium in a civilian reactor, secretly diverted this material to build nuclear weapons, and then withdrew from the NPT in January 2003. Many security analysts fear that Iran may be following Pyongyang’s lead by acquiring uranium-enrichment technology for the production of civilian reactor fuel, a capability that would give it the option to make weapons-grade uranium in the future. For this reason, Schell considers access to fuel-cycle technologies under Article IV to be a Trojan horse that threatens the nonproliferation regime from within.

The Seventh Decade also warns that the NPT is under serious political stress because of the failure of the five nuclear-weapon states to comply with Article VI by making deep, verifiable cuts in their offensive arsenals. Upset with the continued discriminatory nature of the nonproliferation regime, several non–nuclear-weapon states that belong to the NPT, such as Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, have begun to reconsider their options. Even Japan, the only country to have experienced the horrors of nuclear warfare, is openly debating whether to acquire nuclear weapons. IAEA director-general Mohamed El Baradei warned in October 2006 that the nonproliferation regime may be on the verge of collapse, opening the floodgates to a world with as many as 30 nuclear powers.

Despite these real concerns, Schell’s central thesis—that the failure of the nuclear-weapon states to disarm is the chief driver of proliferation—seems overstated. Given the overwhelming U.S. superiority in conventional warfighting capabilities, even if the United States were to eliminate its entire nuclear arsenal, Iran might still be motivated to acquire nuclear arms as an asymmetric deterrent to ward off a conventional U.S. military attack, as well as to bolster its ambition of becoming the leading power in the Persian Gulf.

Schell also overlooks historical cases that do not fit his thesis. For example, key allies of the United States such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have not acquired nuclear weapons in the face of external threats because of the U.S. nuclear deterrent umbrella. In this case, the possession of nuclear weapons by one state has prevented proliferation by others rather than provoking it. Moreover, some past proliferators, including South Africa and Libya, have voluntarily rolled back their nuclear programs for reasons unrelated to the nuclear double standard.

Toward abolition?

The Seventh Decade is particularly critical of current U.S. nuclear strategy. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration became preoccupied with the threat that rogue states such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which supported terrorism and had a history of pursuing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD), might transfer such weapons to terrorists for attacks against the U.S. homeland. This perception of a nexus between WMD and terrorism led to a dramatic change in U.S. national security policy. Bush and his advisers devised an aggressive new approach to nonproliferation in which the United States would use its overwhelming military power to attack and preventively disarm any hostile country seeking WMD.

To implement this new strategy, the Pentagon created a capability called Global Strike, which integrates U.S. conventional and nuclear forces in support of a broad range of warfighting options, including nuclear attacks against hardened underground bunkers and buried caches of chemical and biological weapons. For the Bush administration, Schell concludes, “The mission of nuclear weapons is no longer to produce stalemate with a peer; it is to fight and win wars against nations with little or no ability to respond.”

The Bush preventive war doctrine saw its first application in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which the administration sold to Congress and the public with frightening assertions that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear weapons and might give them to terrorists to attack the United States. After the war, both claims proved to be false, dealing a severe blow to U.S. credibility. Moreover, by threatening to use nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, even against nonpossessor states, Washington encouraged adversaries such as North Korea and Iran to accelerate their own efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent. Schell believes that the dramatic failure of Bush’s militarized approach to non-proliferation has created a political opening for the next president to return to the path of negotiated arms control and disarmament. He adds, however, that halting the spread of nuclear weapons by diplomatic means will be possible only if Washington agrees to renounce its own nuclear arsenal.

In making the case for abolition, Schell looks back to the October 1986 superpower summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, when President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in principle to eliminate their respective nuclear stockpiles, although they differed sharply on how to achieve that goal. Reagan was deeply attached to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a futuristic program to develop space-based ballistic-missile defenses that would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” But Gorbachev, fearing a defensive arms race that would bankrupt the Soviet economy and impede needed reforms, refused to accept deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces unless Washington dropped its plans to test SDI systems in space. Tragically, the conflict over SDI led to the collapse of the Reykjavik summit, yet a workable space-based defense system has yet to materialize despite the investment of billions of dollars in R&D. Meanwhile, the dream of nuclear abolition faded away. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the sole remaining superpower no longer had an incentive to negotiate restraints on its untrammeled military power.

Today, however, Schell believes that both elite and public opinion in the United States are on the cusp of a new awareness of the nuclear threat, particularly the risk of nuclear terrorism. He notes in particular that in January 2007, a bipartisan group of distinguished former statesmen (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn) published an article in the Wall Street Journal that called for reducing and eventually eliminating the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Suddenly it was no longer considered taboo or utopian to talk of nuclear disarmament.

In the final chapter of The Seventh Decade, Schell lays out a roadmap to a nuclear-free world. The process would begin with a commitment to abolition by the nuclear powers as a quid pro quo for proliferators to abandon their weapons programs, followed by stepwise nuclear disarmament. In the final stages, a ballistic-missile defense system might be deployed as a safeguard against cheating. Although such defenses are ineffective against large offensive missile forces, in a disarmed world they would face the far easier task of protecting against the small number of nuclear-tipped missiles that a cheater might cobble together in secret.

Schell’s rather schematic roadmap to a nuclear-free world overlooks a series of enormous practical hurdles. First, he does not offer a clear political strategy. Given the current lack of interest in disarmament on the part of the nuclear powers, it seems likely that a global grassroots movement will be required to jump-start the process. Yet how will it be possible to mobilize a public that has been lulled into a state of complacency about the nuclear weapons threat? Second, given the political differences among the eight countries (both inside and outside the NPT) that currently possess nuclear arsenals, it will be extremely difficult to persuade all of them to disarm in lockstep, with highly intrusive verification measures to ensure compliance..

Finally, if and when small numbers of nuclear weapons are reached, the risks of breakout and instability will increase dramatically. In particular, the transition from an offense-dominant to a defense-dominant world would be complex and fraught with risk. As offensive nuclear forces diminish and ballistic-missile defenses are phased in as a hedge against cheating, one country could theoretically launch a disarming first strike against another with a relatively small number of offensive missiles and then use its strategic defenses to block a ragged retaliatory strike.

Although nuclear abolition is finally being taken seriously as a long-term policy goal, the devil is clearly in the details, and finding a safe path to zero will demand a great deal of thought and analysis. In the meantime, deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces, from the current level of more than 25,000 warheads worldwide (of which 95% are American and Russian) down to a few hundred, are both desirable and feasible, reducing the risk of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. Moreover, the greater the willingness of the nuclear-weapon states to take significant steps toward disarmament, the more the non–nuclear-weapon states are likely to cooperate in controlling access to fuel-cycle technologies, reducing the risk of NPT breakout.

Cite this Article

Tucker, Jonathan B. “Can the Bomb Be Banned?” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 3 (Spring 2008).

Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Spring 2008